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A Guide to Using Plain Language in Writing

Updated on February 22, 2023ProfessionalsWriting Tips

Complex writing that uses rich vocabulary and vivid figurative language can wow readers and show off your writing skills. But it isn’t the only mark of a good writer—another skill that’s just as valuable is the ability to communicate ideas in plain language.

Direct, accessible language is often called plain language. Plain language is designed to communicate information as clearly as possible so it can reach as many people as possible. It’s not simplified language; it’s direct language that doesn’t contain any flair or fluff. You’ve likely encountered plain language in official documents, signs, instruction manuals, and websites.

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What is plain language?

Plain language is language meant to communicate something as quickly and easily as possible. Although we focus on plain English in this post, keep in mind that plain language principles can be applied to just about any language. In fact, many countries’ governments require that public services use plain language in their messaging to ensure that this messaging reaches as many people as possible.

Plain language has a simple structure. Generally, sentences are short and keep the subject and verb close together. The only details they include are those necessary for the reader to understand the sentences’ meaning. For example, signage at a train platform might include the sentence “Wait behind the yellow line.” This plain sentence includes the line’s color so travelers know where to stand and wait. The signage likely wouldn’t include a sentence with unnecessary details like “Wait behind the yellow line until the train arrives and then walk into the train in an orderly fashion to avoid injury.” Even though these details are true, they don’t add any critical information to the sentence.

Other hallmarks of plain language include:

  • Active voice whenever possible
  • Concise, focused paragraphs
  • Topic mentioned early in a sentence or paragraph
  • Universal vocabulary
  • Clear, easy-to-navigate formatting and structure

When you use plain language, you aren’t “dumbing down” your writing. Rather, you’re writing to avoid any potential misunderstanding due to a language barrier, limited literacy, or limited familiarity with your topic. This is why plain language is often used in medical and legal documents. Other types of content that often use plain language include:

  • Instruction manuals
  • Travel information
  • Documents and websites related to government benefits and services
  • International versions of websites

What plain language is not

Plain language avoids jargon, complex sentence structure, and any potentially confusing vocabulary. This includes figurative language like metaphor and allusion, which may include references that readers with different backgrounds find difficult to understand.

Jargon is any vocabulary that requires industry or insider knowledge. For example, the word latency refers to the delay between user input and a computer’s response to that input. For example, you might describe an application with high latency as “slow” or “laggy” because of the delay between your input and the app’s responses. If you work in IT, you can comfortably use this piece of jargon with your colleagues because they know what it means. But when speaking with clients who might not have an IT background, you might instead use terms like laggy or slow to ensure that they know what you’re talking about. Plain language uses this same principle: The writer should assume the reader has no background knowledge of the topic they’re covering and opt to use vocabulary the reader will know, even when a technical term is the more accurate choice.

Beyond avoiding jargon, plain language also avoids longer and more obscure words. For example, plain language would use hungry instead of famished and quickly instead of expeditiously.

Plain language is more than word choice though. It also involves structuring writing to prioritize clarity. There are a few components to this part of plain language. One is structuring writing in a way that emphasizes its main topic and presents supporting information in a logical, coherent narrative. This involves using clear headers for each section and keeping paragraphs focused on one idea each rather than covering multiple ideas in one paragraph. It also involves using transition sentences within and between paragraphs to highlight how the concepts you’ve introduced relate to each other.

How to write in plain language

There are no concrete rules for writing in plain language. Rather, there are general guidelines to follow. These include:

  • Use vocabulary your reader is likely to know. When choosing words, always choose the simplest words possible.
  • Use short sentences. Split one long sentence into two short ones when possible.
  • Make the relationships between ideas and sentences clear with transition words.
  • Include only details that make the information easier to understand. Leave out any extraneous details.
  • Write directly to your reader. In many cases, this means writing in the second person point of view.
  • Use the active voice whenever possible.

Keep in mind that not every guideline is applicable to every piece of plain writing. Your goal is to write something that’s accessible and easy to understand, and that often means determining your audience’s needs and adjusting the language you use to meet those needs.

You can build plain language into your writing before you actually start writing. Because much of plain writing involves structure and formatting, outline your work with readability in mind. Write each section’s topic sentence in a clear, logical order; beneath each one, note the topics you’ll cover in each section. By creating a clear outline that prioritizes a logical flow, you’re making it easier for yourself to stay on track as you write.

Once you’ve finished your first draft, look for sentences and passages that can be made plainer. It can be helpful to run your writing through a readability tool like Readable. Readable analyzes your writing and highlights areas that are long, complex, or potentially confusing. Make revisions to make your writing easier to read and, if you have time, have somebody else read through it and note any areas that can be revised further.

Plain language examples

Example 1

The enrollment period for international students begins on November 14 and ends on December 5. Please submit all of your documents to the International Education office on or before December 5. You will receive your course schedule by January 11.

Example 2

All driving tests are administered by the Department of Motor Vehicles. Please arrive for your test with two forms of identification (a passport, student ID, or government-issued ID is acceptable). Wait in the designated waiting area until you are called to the desk. The receptionist will then bring you to the testing area.

Plain language is a way to connect with your readers quickly and easily. Keep your sentences short and focused. Use vocabulary your reader is likely to know, rather than jargon.

Plain language FAQs

What is plain language?

Plain language is language that prioritizes reader understanding. It’s clear and direct and aims to eliminate any potential confusion.

Why is plain language important?

Plain language is important because it makes information accessible to a wide range of people. It can make complex topics, like legal processes or medical information, easy for individuals without background knowledge in these areas to understand.

What are the key components of plain language in writing?

Key components of plain writing include:

  • Concise, focused sentences and paragraphs
  • Simple, familiar vocabulary
  • A structure and format that make the narrative clear
  • The active voice
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